Well, some of you know that before I became a pastor, I was a teacher. I was a highschool English teacher for 12 years. And to this day, I still love words. I love looking up the derivation of words. I like playing around with words. I especially love those mashup words, which is when you take two words and you put them together to form a new word. So most of you know the word brunch is a combination of breakfast and lunch. And smog is a combination of smoke and fog. Then there are more recent ones like blog is a combination of web and log. And dramedy is a combination of drama and comedy.
These words are so clever, and they're being created all the time. I love them. I heard one recently that I really liked. It said, if your religion causes harm to others, it's not evangelism. It's evandelism. I liked that one.
During the contentious election season, a few years ago, we heard another mashup word a lot. And it was the word sheeple, which is a combination of the words sheep and people, people on the right were calling people on the left sheeple and vice versa. And the word was used so much, that it's now in the dictionary!. And if you look it up in the dictionary, it says, ‘People who follow the majority in opinion and taste, and people who are easily persuaded to follow the crowd.’
And when I think about that, I think that there are many Christians in America today who are sheeple. There tends to be this herd mentality among Christians, this herd behavior. They believe, what they're told to believe. They behave how they're told to behave. They vote how they're told to vote.
Now, I share this with you today, because in our gospel reading from the lectionary for the fourth Sunday of Easter, Jesus refers to himself as the shepherd and to us as the sheep. But Jesus is in no way, shape, or form, calling us to be sheeple. I told you a few Sundays ago, people who just blindly follow without thinking for themselves, belong to cults. And Jesus wasn't forming a cult. In fact, Jesus wasn't even forming a new religion. Jesus was teaching people a new way of life, a new way of living, a new way of being. He was telling his students to stop listening to the voices of the world, of politicians, of religious leaders, of society, and star tuning yourself to the voice of the shepherd.
Which is that still, small voice within us.
That's the way of the shepherd. Now Jesus, of course, was a great teacher, his students called him Rabbi, which means teacher. And he knew that most of his students were not well educated. They couldn't read or write. And so Jesus used terms with which they would be familiar. Many of them were farmers, so he used sheep, and shepherd. And most of us today love that image of Jesus as as the shepherd. You know, there's that beautiful painting of Jesus holding that beautiful little baby lamb in his arms. It's so beautiful and so comforting to us. But you know, back in Jesus's day, sheep were considered unclean by the religious authorities, and therefore, being a shepherd was not a very well respected profession. Being a shepherd in Jesus's day was kind of like a last-ditch option for men who could find no other way of earning a living. Shepherds were considered dirty and unclean, not just literally, but morally, as well.
And that's why it is amazing to me that Jesus referred to himself as a shepherd. Once again, he is aligning himself with the marginalized, the outcast, and with the least of these,
And the Scripture tells us that Jesus used this metaphor of the shepherd with his students. But his students didn't understand it.
And the reason they didn't understand it is because they didn't want a shepherd. They were expecting a king. They wanted a king to come to establish a kingdom.
But Jesus said, ‘No, I'm the shepherd, leading you to an interior spiritual kingdom.’ That's why he says, that kingdom is within you.
Follow my voice, that still, small voice within you. The way of the shepherd is an inner way. It's the way of the mystics.
And that's why I stress to you all the time, the importance of prayer and meditation. This morning, Our Old Testament reading was Psalm 23. The psalm most of us love, that the shepherd is leading us to Pastures of Plenty, where our soul will find rest.
When we get still and go within, when we quiet all the noises of the world and get still in silence, that will lead to the Pastures of Plenty where our souls will find rest.
Now, Julie read for us this morning, a passage from a book. It was just one of my favorite contemporary spiritual books, called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. It was written by an actual Shepherd, whose name was Philip Keller. And he reminds us that there are four conditions that must be met in order for sheep to lie down and to find rest. And he says that, unless these four conditions are met, they will never lie down. So they are: they must be free from fear. They must be free from friction with others of their kind, they must be free from pests, and they must be free from hunger.
And the same is true for us. You will never be at peace, your soul will never find rest if you're fearful. If you're always worried about things, about the future, you will never be at peace. If you have friction with others, you will never be at peace. If you are being annoyed by pests – those pests are negative thinking, your monkey mind, 24 hour cable news, social media.
And you'll never find rest if you're always hungry, meaning hungry for the things of this world which will never satisfy you.
If you are feeling those things, you are not attuned to the voice of the shepherd. Instead, you're putting your focus on those outer voices and the voices of your ego that are trying to keep you from your peace.
We must attune ourselves to the voice of the shepherd. And we do that through prayer and meditation and mindfulness. Now Jesus was not the only spiritual teacher to talk about this inner voice. The Sufi poet Rumi, who I know many of you love. Sufiism is the mystical branch of Islam. The Sufi poet Rumi said, there is a voice that doesn't use words, listen to it.
There is a voice that doesn't use words, listen to it.
And the Buddha said this, ‘Do not believe anything simply because you've heard it. Don't believe anything simply because it's written in your religious books. Don't believe in anything merely on the authority of teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they've been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.’
And the late visionary Steve Jobs, who was a student of both Buddhism and Hinduism said, ‘Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, and most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you want to become. Everything else is secondary.’
Now, many of you notice that on my stole, I have a comma. For those of you who are new, you may wonder what that's all about. Well, the comma is the symbol of our denomination, the United Church of Christ. And what it stands for is, “God is still speaking.” That's the motto of our church. God is still speaking. That is the truth. But are you listening? Are you tuned in to that voice? Or, or is your world filled with noise of outer voices?
Many contemporary spiritual teachers refer to this inner voice as your Divine GPS. And they say it stands for God Positioning System. You know how the GPS in your car leads you to your destination? Well your divine GPS, when you listen to it, will direct you home.
So my friends, I hope, that during this season of Easter, the season of new growth and new life, that you will find time each and every day, to be still and know. Turn off the TV, get away from your phone, shut out those voices, and get still so that you can hear the voice of the shepherd, the voice that says I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full. The voice that says Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Phillip Keller from the book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23
In Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd makes the sheep lie down in pastures of plenty. The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity, they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. It is significant that to be at rest there must be a definite sense of freedom from fear, tension, aggravations, and hunger. The unique aspect of the picture is that it is only the shepherd who can provide release from these anxieties. It all depends upon the diligence of the owner, whether or not their flock is free of disturbing influences. When we examine each of these four factors that affect sheep so severely, we will understand why the part the owner plays in their management is so tremendously important. It is actually they who make it possible for them to lie down, to rest, to relax, to be content, quiet, and flourishing. A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated, and disturbed never does well. And the same is true of people.
Watch the Homily: https://youtu.be/vg1pd91nk74
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